External Impediment: The Competing Regime Promotion Strategies of the EU and Russia in Ukraine
The external dimension of Ukraine’s democratisation challenges has received a significant amount of attention over the past decade, particularly as the EU has actively sought to promote democracy in Ukraine in the last decade (Solonenko 2009; Gawrich et al. 2010; Casier 2011). Additionally, with the increased interference of the Kremlin in Ukrainian politics, starting in the wake of the Orange Revolution and reaching a crescendo with the Ukraine crisis, Russia’s role as a kind of autocracy promoter (or at the very least, a bulwark against democratisation) in Ukraine (and its broader ‘near abroad’) has become a more recent focus of literature (Ambrosio 2010; Bader et al. 2010; Melnykovska et al. 2012). Certainly, the external impediments to democracy are not as critical as the current internal impediments in Ukraine, particularly the impact of oligarchs, but nevertheless the geopolitical setting Ukraine currently resides in has important implications for its democratisation prospects.
Various external variables have been cited as having the potential to impact the democratisation trajectories of a given state. The diffusion argument, which held that because instances of democratisation tend to occur in temporal and spatial clusters (i.e. waves) states are susceptible to what is occurring in their region, lost much of its appeal after the failures of the Colour Revolutions and Arab spring waves which did not result in the spread of democracy, although it did, arguably, spread regime change (Beissinger 2009; Hale 2013). While the jury is out as to whether democracy via diffusion occurs, the role of external democracy promoters is something that has been more concretely evaluated in the past two decades (Tolstrup 2012). Certainly, it is unsurprising that large international powers, whether on an international or regional level, have specific regime preferences for strategically important smaller states and often undertake actions to promote one specific regime-type over another (Smith 2015).
In the post-Cold War setting, regime promotion has predominately been undertaken under the guise of international democracy promotion led by Western powers such as the United States and the EU. However, more recently, it has been asserted, particularly in the foreign policies of Russia and China, that autocracies have also started promoting their own regime type (Bader et al. 2010; Melnykovska et al. 2012). Crudely, both democracy and autocracy promotion strategies attempt to, in part, induce their preferred regime by using the mechanism of conditionality; appealing directly to strategic calculations of political elites in a target state (Tolstrup 2012). Indeed, much of the EU’s apparent success in facilitating democratic transitions in 10 post-Communist countries in Central Eastern Europe (CEE) and the Baltics through its enlargement process which began in the 1990s was due to the offer a ‘golden carrot’ of membership in the EU which made the benefits of undertaking the prescribed democratic reforms outweigh the costs (Schimmelfennig and Sedelmeier 2004).
In the context of Ukraine, it was not until the events of the Orange Revolution that it became an explicit target state for both democratic and autocratic promotion from outsiders. Certainly, prior to the Orange Revolution, democracy promotion (and perhaps autocracy promotion) by external actors did occur in Ukraine, but this was mainly a softer form of promotion, undertaken by state agencies (e.g. USAID) in conjunction with local NGOs, that appealed not to the strategic calculations of elites but to their ‘logic of appropriateness’ through socialising them with Western democratic norms. Consequently, the impact of the various external democracy promotion strategies on Ukraine’s democratisation was relatively minor in the first dozen years of its independence.
Preceding the Orange Revolution, Europe’s geopolitical setting changed significantly in 2004 with the enlargement of the EU eastwards which coincided with a re-assertiveness of Russia in its near abroad, generating a corridor of states between the two; a shared neighbourhood of Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine (Averre 2009). Subsequently, when the Orange Revolution materialised in late 2004 in this newly emerged geopolitical setting of Eastern Europe, both the EU and Russia had interests in the regime outcome in Ukraine. The EU played an important role (in conjunction with the United States) in securing a rerun of the election while proactively funding pro-Yushchenko NGOs in order to support the Orange revolutionaries secure power (Wilson 2006; Youngs 2009). Conversely, Russia strongly backed Yanukovych as its preferred presidential candidate with Russian Prime Minister Putin calling the Orange Revolution ‘unconstitutional’ while stating that ‘a repeat of the second round would yield nothing’ (Schneider 2004).
The Orange Revolution represented something of a watershed moment for regime promotion conflict between external actors in Ukraine. Shortly, after the revolution in 2005, the EU involved Ukraine in its European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) which aimed at promoting European-style democratisation in Ukraine through offering trade and economic incentives in return for successful reform (Gawrich et al. 2010). As outlined in a jointly agreed action plan, ‘further strengthening the stability and effectiveness of institutions guaranteeing democracy and the rule of law’ was deemed the top priority of the relationship, with additional mention of electoral performance, judicial performance, freedom of media and the fight against corruption as well (European Commission 2005). However, crucially, instead of offering eventual membership in the Union as an incentive for reform, the EU offered only vague economic and political incentives. Indeed, this was somewhat rectified with the EU’s attempted upgrading of the policy through initiating the Eastern Partnership (EaP) in 2009, which sought to offer more concrete incentives for the tabled reform, namely a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA), but even so, this still fell significantly short of a ‘membership perspective’ (European Commission 2009).
Conversely, after Yushchenko’s ultimate victory in the rerun of the presidential election, Russia sought to discredit, through utilising ‘dezin- formatsiya’ tactics, and punish, through energy and trade squeezes, the new regime while actively supporting the main opposition parties: the Party of the Regions and the Communist Party (Kuzio 2005). Stent (2008, p. 1101) argued that the Kremlin’s post-Orange Revolution policy aimed to ‘ensure that Russian youth does not catch the virus that had infected Ukrainian youth’. Later, Russia upped its regime promotion ante through employing its own form of conditionality, offering Ukraine a membership opportunity in its Eurasian Economic Union project, a politically and economically less demanding alternative to the EU’s EaP initiative (Dragneva and Wolczuk 2012). Although not officially designed to promote autocracy, Russia’s insistence on a loyal Ukrainian regime did have important democratic implications, particularly in relation to lessening the impact of the EU’s prescribed reforms. As Ambrosio (2010, p. 376) argues, Russia has endeavoured, particularly in its periphery, to create ‘conditions under which democracy promotion is blunted and state sovereignty (understood as the ability of leaders to determine the form of government for their country) is further entrenched’.
The competing regime preferences of the EU and Russia made life incredibly difficult for Ukraine’s rulers, particularly given the necessity of Ukraine’s long-held multi-vector foreign policy (maintaining strong relations with multiple foreign partners) to its functioning (Gnedina 2015). With regards to democracy, the geopolitical pressures on Ukraine produced an external environment far from conducive to undertaking democratic reform. During the reign of Yushchenko (2005-2010), the EU’s ENP policy had little effect, particularly due to its ambiguity and lacking incentives on offer. This was exacerbated by Russia’s support for antigovernment factions during this reign which worsened the infighting amongst Orange revolutionaries while strengthening opposition figures, eventually aiding, in part, Yanukovych’s election victory in 2010.
In Yanukovych’s subsequent reign (2010-2014), regime promotion competition between the EU and Russia became more zero-sum and contributed to the onset of the Ukraine crisis (Smith 2015). The EU’s EaP process, which was to reach its zenith in late 2013 with Ukraine signing an Association Agreement at the Vilnius Summit, initially seemed to have won out over Russia’s competing Eurasian Economic Union offer. However, out of desperation, Russia utilised its trade and energy leverage, along with financial support (a proposed $15 billion loan), to assuage Yanukovych into reneging on the EU deal in favour of an alternative Russian deal (Pridham 2014). The ensuing fallout from this decision eventually led to Yanukovych’s flight from power in March 2014 and sparked the deterioration of the Ukraine crisis. Although it is too early to assess the external dimension of the post-Yanukovych setting as it pertains to democratisation (and regime promotion), it appears that Ukraine is destined to become something of a static buffer state between the EU and Russia, and thus, remain an illiberal democracy.
Consequently, in the decade since the Orange Revolution, Ukraine’s geopolitical setting, where the EU and Russia openly competed to secure their own regime preferences in Ukraine, significantly pacified any opportunity for external influence on the democratisation process. The EU’s democracy promotion policies were hamstrung by its lack of tangible incentives on offer for Ukraine to undertake its prescribed reform, most notably the failure to provide a clear membership perspective. Additionally, Russia’s countervailing regime promotion strategies further undermined the EU’s democracy promotion and helped entrench illiberal practices in Ukraine’s governance. Ultimately, the strategic calculations of key elites in Ukraine continued to deem the costs of undertaking Ukraine’s democratic reform targets (as prescribed by the EU) as higher than the benefits, particularly when the added costs of Russia’s threats and actions were factored in, leading to only half-hearted attempts at pursuing democratisation during this period.